Home Features HEALTH & SAFETY: When it fits the face

Construction workers are at significant risk from breathing in dust if control measures are not in place and the correct protection is not worn. This month Alistair Moffat looks at some of the implications of respiratory protective equipment.

I was recently undertaking a safety audit for a drylining subcontractor. The project is a complex refurbishment in the City. Poor work sequencing by the principal contractor (PC) was almost equalled in agony by nighon impossible site logistics. The combination of these two issues has resulted in multiple trades working along side each competing to keep to programme.

Any semi-competent health and safety inspector would have dined out on the bounty of non-compliances. Into this scenario our hero, the HSE inspector, appears with his note pad. Seemingly oblivious to the poor health and safety culture of the site,
he is focused on respiratory protective equipment (RPE). I was aware this is a current theme with the HSE and had arranged for face-fit testing to be undertaken a few weeks previously. The drylining site manager was competent to undertake face-fit training through formal training (for masks to FFP2/3 to BS EN 149:2009) with a leading supplier of RPE. The face-fit assessments had taken place for operatives, what could go wrong?

In the first instance the HSE inspector appeared to cast doubt over the integrity of the face-fit testing. Seemingly this scepticism was fuelled by only one size of FPP2 mask being on site; furthermore there were no records of those who had failed the assessment. He requested the tests be reconvened. However, during this process he continued to carry out his safety tour of the site, only to come across an operative with no RPE (or ear defenders or goggles) cutting the slab with an abrasive disc. If windows had been installed they would have been ripped inwards by the vacuum of the HSE inspector’s intake of breath. As an aside, the subby concerned and the PC were fined under ‘Fee for Intervention’.

As people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes it is unlikely that one particular type or size of RPE facepiece will fit everyone;a logical assumption but not necessarily correct. As often is the case, the more you pay the better the value, and some FPP (disposal masks) are so soft that they will be effective on a wide range of face contours. Although they may be more expensive they are also more durable and may last up to 72 hours. Not wishing to criticise the HSE inspector, but he may have been in error if he thought a one-size-fits-all mask would not pass a well-convened face fit test assessment.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the foregoing it is the need to recognise expertise in specialised fields. Market leading suppliers of RPE provide comprehensive advice on their products based on well-founded research and testing. They also provide very useful ‘bells and whistles’ such as free face-fit assessments, sample masks to try, etc. Not wishing to speak ill of the HSE inspector but they are human and cannot be expected to be specialists in all disciplines.

If RPE is purchased through competitive tendering using distributors then often this advice is devalued or not available. That well-trodden cliché of you get what you pay for applies.

Alistair Moffat
Brunel Construction Consultants